By George Will
Syndicated columnists in over 450 newspapers
Frank Lloyd Wright purportedly said, “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” Today, however, Oregon is the state with the strangest state of mind, which has something to do with it being impeccably progressive: In the series “Portlandia,” the mention of artisanal lightbulbs might be satirical, but given today’s gas-pumping controversy, perhaps not.
On Jan. 1, by the grace of God — or of the government, which is pretty much the same thing to progressives — a sliver of a right was granted to Oregonians: Henceforth they can pump gas into their cars and trucks, all by themselves. But only in counties with populations of less than 40,000, evidently because this walk on the wild side is deemed to be prudent only in the hinterlands, where there is a scarcity of qualified technicians trained in the science of pumping. Still, 2018 will be the year of living dangerously in the state that was settled by people who trekked there on the Oregon Trail, through the territory of Native Americans hostile to Manifest Destiny.
Oregon is one of two states that ban self-service filling stations. The other is almost-as-deep-blue New Jersey. There the ban is straightforward, no-damned-nonsense-about-anything-else protectionism: The point is to spare full-service gas stations from competing with self-service stations that, having lower labor costs, have lower prices.
Oregon’s Legislature offers 17 reasons “it is in the public interest to maintain a prohibition on the self-service dispensing of Class 1 flammable liquids” — aka, gasoline, which you put in your car’s “Class 1 flammable liquids tank.” The first reason is: The dispensing of such liquids “by dispensers properly trained in appropriate safety procedures reduces fire hazards.” This presumably refers to the many conflagrations regularly occurring at filling stations throughout the 48 states where 96 percent of Americans live lives jeopardized by state legislators who are negligent regarding their nanny-state duty to assume that their constituents are imbeciles.
Among Oregon’s 16 other reasons are: Service-station cashiers are often unable to “give undivided attention” to the rank amateurs dispensing flammable liquids. When purchasers of such liquids leave their vehicles they risk “crime,” and “personal injury” from slick surfaces. (“Oregon’s weather is uniquely adverse”; i.e., it rains there.) “Exposure to toxic fumes.” Senior citizens or persons with disabilities might have to pay a higher cost at a full-service pump, which would be discriminatory. When people pump gas without the help of “trained and certified” specialists, no specialists peer under the hood to administer prophylactic maintenance, thereby “endangering both the customer and other motorists and resulting in unnecessary and costly repairs.” Self-service “has contributed to diminishing the availability of automotive repair facilities at gasoline stations” without providing — note the adjective — “sustained” reduction in gas prices. Self-service causes unemployment. And “small children left unattended” by novice gas pumpers “creates a dangerous situation.” So there.
Oregon’s Solomonic decision — freedom to pump in rural counties; everywhere else, unthinkable — terrified some Oregonians: “No! Disabled, seniors, people with young children in the car need help. Not to mention getting out of your car with transients around and not feeling safe too. This is a very bad idea.” “Not a good idea, there are lots of reason to have an attendant helping, one is they need a job too. Many people are not capable of knowing how to pump gas and the hazards of not doing it correctly. Besides I don’t want to go to work smelling of gas.”
The complainers drew complaints: “You put the gas in your car not shower in it princess.” “If your only marketable job skill is being able to pump gas, by god, move to Oregon and you will have reached the promised land.” “Pumped my own gas my whole life and now my hands have literally melted down to my wrists. I’m typing this with my tongue.” These days, civic discourse is not for shrinking violets.
To be fair, when Oregonians flinch from a rendezvous with an unattended gas pump, progressive government has done its duty, as it understands this. It wants the governed to become used to having things done for them, as by “trained and certified” gas pumpers. Progressives are proud believers in providing experts — usually themselves — to help the rest of us cope with life. The only downside is that, as Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated, such government, by being the “shepherd” of the governed, can “take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking” and keep them “fixed irrevocably in childhood.”